Seaweed helps bees ward off devastating bugs

Irish firm Advance Science creates natural supplement HiveAlive to boost health of hives

Seaweed has numerous well-documented health and beauty benefits for humans. But apparently it is also good for bees and the Irish-developed seaweed-based supplement, HiveAlive, has been creating quite a buzz in the apian community worldwide.

HiveAlive helps bees fight disease by supporting their gut health and is the only nutritional supplement approved for use by beekeepers in New Zealand, home of Manuka honey. The product, which is made in Ireland using extracts from Atlantic harvested seaweeds, is now being exported to 30 countries including Iran, the US, Saudi Arabia, Japan and throughout Europe.

The driving force behind HiveAlive is physicist and beekeeper Dara Scott. Scott began keeping bees in 2003 having been captivated by the practice while travelling in New Zealand. He set up Advance Science in 2010 to commercialise HiveAlive and the company, which is co-located between the business innovation centre at NUI Galway and a field station in Connemara's Inagh Valley, now employs six people.

Scott was fascinated by honeybee behaviour and the smooth running and well-ordered society of the hive. However, he also knew that keeping bees could end in tears not least because no hive is immune to the devastation caused by bugs such as the Nosema parasite and the Varroa mite.

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Under attack

Scott was well aware of the mayhem these bugs were already creating around the world but was far from impressed by some of the solutions being used to counter attack, including the prophylactic use of antibiotics.

Coming from the west of Ireland he was familiar with the healing and nutritional properties of seaweed and aware that seaweeds had been successfully incorporated into animal feed to build disease resistance and boost the immune system.

“It struck me that if seaweed worked for humans and animals then maybe it would work for bees,” he said. “As a beekeeper, I was very concerned about the problems facing hive owners and equally frustrated by the lack of solutions. I set myself the goal of creating something that would improve bee health naturally and sustainably and that’s how HiveAlive began.”

Scott had his "eureka" moment while working in the US with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, managing its deep-sea robot. "Research contracts typically lasted four or five months so I would complete a project and then come home and spend the money I'd earned on my research for HiveAlive. I was never a nine to five person so this arrangement suited me very well," he says.

Scott began working with a seaweed expert to identify the varieties most likely to yield what he was looking for – a natural nutritional supplement that would make honeybees stronger and more resilient to disease. “Nosema attacks the gut of honeybees, meaning they cannot absorb nutrients efficiently, die younger and do not produce as much honey. It has also been linked to huge bee losses called Colony Collapse Disorder,” he says.

“HiveAlive is fed to bees in their sugar syrup when food levels are low during winter and spring, and we now have both experiential and scientific evidence that HiveAlive can increase honeybee colony strength quite significantly.”

In 2012 Scott packed in his 10-year career with Woods Hole to put all of his efforts into HiveAlive. He took part in a start your own business course and began working with scientists at NUI Galway to refine the product with the help of Enterprise Ireland Innovation Vouchers.

The company was subsequently supported by Údarás na Gaeltachta and by angel investors from Westbic business and innovation centre in Galway. Scott estimates startup and development costs to date at about €400,000.

Slow burn

HiveAlive had its full commercial launch in 2013 and sales have been growing steadily since.

“It’s been a slow burn because the product was basically five years in the making and this kind of nutritional supplement is something completely new to the beekeeping community,” Scott says.

“However users are beginning to see results and this is really giving us traction. It’s been a big gamble, not least because so much was unknown. There was no existing database that could tell us about beekeeping in other places. We’ve had to break all the ground ourselves.

"What's really helping us now is the very positive results from a long-term field test carried out in Greece. It tracked 40 hives, half of which were fed HiveAlive. The fed colonies had 89 per cent more bees than the control colonies and much lower levels of Nosema spores present. This is particularly relevant to European beekeepers where the only approved treatment for Nosema, Fumagillin, is prohibited."

With HiveAlive up and running Advance Science has now turned its R&D attention to two new areas. The first is using pheromones to improve bee colony health. The second is using its existing technologies to expand into the animal and human healthcare markets.

“We are collaborating with MiCRA Biodiagnostics (Institute of Technology Tallaght) on our pheromones studies which can best be described as being at the ‘leading edge’ of scientific research in our industry. What we’re investigating is completely new,” Scott says.

“As regards the animal/human strand, our current product contains active ingredients with strong antifungal properties. We are now exploring whether these actives demonstrate efficacy against other fungal pathogens relevant to animal and human health. We believe moving into these new markets is key to the growth and long-term sustainability of the company.”